Seeing the PhD viva from the other side (the good side)

Throughout the course of my PhD the viva stayed in the back of my mind as being something that sounded vaguely scary, but that by the time I did it I would completely ready for. Because, of course, when I had spent three years or more studying full time I would surely know everything there was to know. After all, aren’t you supposed to (briefly) become the world’s foremost expert on your topic?

Three years and five weeks in, I submitted my thesis. Suddenly, the viva loomed. No longer a vaguely scary event located somewhere in the future when I would be ready for it, it was now set to take place precisely six weeks and two days later.

My first mistake was taking that first week off. I had worked some really long hours to get everything finalised for submission and I felt I had earned some time out. Which was fine, except the following week a couple of things cropped up unexpectedly and suddenly I was two weeks into my viva preparation time and hadn’t really started yet. I think those first two weeks would have made all the difference between going into the viva feeling fully prepared and what actually happened, which was that I felt like I knew what I needed to do only I had completely run out of time in which to do it.

As it happened, I had done enough. There was a moment where I felt myself physically come to terms with the fact that I had no more time and I relaxed. Heading down the corridor to the meeting room turned out not to be the nerve-wracking perp walk I had imagined, and I remember saying to my escort that I felt weirdly calm.

The viva turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and confidence-building experiences I have ever had. I’d heard so many horror stories about vindictive examiners and how the purpose of the viva is to force you to defend your thesis, not against scholarly scrutiny but against brutal attack. At no point during my viva did I feel under attack. Both of my examiners seemed genuinely interested in my work and what I had to say about it. When I came out – I think about an hour and a quarter later – I felt as though the whole thing could not have gone any better.

That’s not to say I did everything perfectly by any means. I know I gave some weak answers and I failed to say some of the things I should have. And I’m reasonably sure I misunderstood a couple of things they asked. What I would most like to change is the long-winded response I gave to the first question asking how I got interested in the subject in the first place. It was the opening question, the one that the books say is designed to put you at ease, and I was so relieved that they didn’t start with ‘So, tell us about your thesis’ – which I had had terrible trouble first coming up with a good answer to and then remembering it – that I ended up giving a quite lengthy description of a couple of years of my life. They smiled politely and nodded, but I think they were hoping I would just shut up so they could get on with the real questions. On the plus side, it got me talking and I feel (although I’m sure the other people in the room might think differently) as though I managed to be quite articulate for the rest of the viva. Trust me, this is not always the case – I traditionally don’t do well verbally when put on the spot. And vivas really put you on the spot.

They did want me to make some amendments, so clearly I didn’t manage to cover all my bases. But I had really thought about the weaknesses and limitations of the research design and the claims I was making, so in the end none of the questions they asked me were much of a problem to answer.

The actual preparation I did for the viva came in two stages:

Firstly, I read a book suggested by my supervisor sometime during my second year: Trafford, V & Leshem, S (2008) Stepping stones to achieving your doctorate: focusing on your viva from the start Maidenhead: Open University Press: McGraw-Hill Education. Although the book suggests that you start preparing for your viva at the beginning of your PhD, which I didn’t do, I did get to it before I designed the structure of my thesis and I think this was invaluable. It meant that everything that went into the thesis did so with a view to being able to meet all the objectives of the viva. Everything I wrote was mentally filtered through the question ‘what will they ask me about this’ (well, not everything I wrote obviously, but everything that made it into the final cut!). That’s not to say I managed to anticipate every single question they asked, but I found during the viva itself that my examiners didn’t ask me very much at all about what I had written in the thesis but instead wanted to talk about the implications of my study for research and methodology in my field, and what I wanted to do with the research next. One of the things the Stepping Stones book suggested was that if the bulk of your questions during the viva focus on the actual text of your thesis then you haven’t done a very good job of explaining yourself even if your research is sound.

Secondly, I looked at every single webpage I could find that provided sample viva questions. I separated them into topics:

  • Overview of thesis
  • General questions (e.g. motivations for doing the research)
  • Research context
  • Research methods
  • Analysis and findings
  • Originality and contribution
  • What next

And then I answered them. And then I answered them a bit better. And there were many that I didn’t want to answer because I didn’t know the answer and they were the ones that I forced myself to really think about. And, of course, those ones that I had really not wanted to think about were the ones they asked me in the viva.

So, lessons learned? The viva really is an opportunity to talk about the work that has taken over your life – and, importantly, the experience of doing it – with people that will listen. Enjoy that. Write your thesis with a view to being able to defend every decision you made and every claim you make. And then find every possible question you can get your hands on that examiners might want to ask and come up with an answer that would convince you if you were asking it of someone else’s work. And then accept that you have done everything that you could in the time that you took to do it, then go into your viva and let your examiners enjoy your contribution to knowledge.

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